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Three Philosophical Lives

Hubert L. Dreyfus, Benjamin R. Barber, Robert Pirsig


Hubert L. Dreyfus, who passed away on Friday April 21, was a figure of quiet importance in the discipline of philosophy. He belonged to the philosophical cohort that includes Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jürgen Habermas, and Richard Bernstein, but unlike the aforementioned Dreyfus was not widely known outside the disciplines of philosophy and cognitive science, and he donned the mantle of “public intellectual” rarely if at all. Like Rorty et. al., he played a pivotal role in rendering phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, and poststructuralist genealogists like Foucault, intelligible to Anglo-American scholars. He was part of the dogged and frustrating effort to close the “Continental/Analytic Divide” which finally does seem to be narrowing, and he accomplished this in two ways.

First, Dreyfus was the pioneer who first affirmed the place of philosophy at the table of cognitive science in the mid-1960s, by way of an article “Alchemy and AI”, later expanded into a book, What Computers Can’t Do, which called into question the tacit assumptions built into the kind of artificial intelligence that prevailed at that time, computationalism. According to this research program, dubbed “Good Old Fashioned AI” or GOFAI by Dreyfus’s colleague John Haugeland, the mind can be viewed as a Turing machine realized in the hardware of the brain. Like a digital computer, the human mind manipulates bits of encoded information in accordance with transformation rules, generating output – speech, behavior – that can be interpreted as meaningful. Dreyfus’s argument against construing the human mind as this sort of syntactic engine differed from that of his Berkeley colleague John Searle, who contended that a mere syntactic engine cannot generate semantic content, and that “the causal powers of the brain”, to be revealed as neuroscience develops, supply that content. Dreyfus’s argument was actually far more philosophically radical and thoroughgoing than Searle’s. Dreyfus claimed that we cannot make sense of generating meaning from decontextualized bits of information by transforming them in accordance with rules, since neither intelligent understanding nor the world thus understood work that way. To identify and analyze informational bits one already needs to have placed them against a broader background of understanding (an application of early Heidegger), and to apply transformational rules one needs to count on nonformalizable skills lest one generate a regress of rules and meta-rules (an application of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations). Speaking of “the World” entails being always already immersed in a meaningful totality or whole, and to be there as an embodied agent. Contra Searle, Dreyfus claimed that Turing-machines don’t really think not because they are mere syntactic engines without minds, but that they lack bodies with which they can be involved in a world. It is an interesting side-note that, while Dreyfus was met with dismissive contempt by the GOFAI establishment, the research program that evolved from it, which takes as its paradigms the neural-net modelling of the brain and heuristic “machine learning”, is much closer to Dreyfus’s linking of “embodied agency” and “involved coping” than it is to the classic GOFAI approach. (I could well imagine the androids of Star Trek and Blade Runner nodding in agreement.)

Second, Dreyfus was one of the first scholars, along with William Richardson, to introduce Heidegger’s work to an American audience. Dreyfus knew the prevailing analytic idiom in America quite well, and was able to rephrase continental issues in analytic terms, and vice versa. He was one of the first to catch the affinities between Heidegger’s Being and Time and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and to construe them as variants of something like pragmatism, which he dubbed “practical holism.” The important insight shared by Wittgenstein and Heidegger (and Merleau-Ponty) is that our fix on the world is “firstly and mostly” that of engaged coping in and with it, and that our theoretical articulation of that world in explicit knowledge depends on this kind of primordial know-how. This is a theme that found early expression, in different forms, by the classical American pragmatists Peirce, James, and Dewey, and which in turn provided a basis for the revival of pragmatism by the “neopragmatists” Richard Rorty, Richard Bernstein, and Cornel West.

Dreyfus’s reading of Heidegger, which is relentlessly focused on Division 1 of Being and Time, was idiosyncratic. It is at antipodes to those interpretations, like Richardson’s, which take “the Question of Being”, the Seinsfrage, to be the alpha and omega of Heidegger’s thought, or to those that view Heidegger’s genius to inhere in his secularization of Kierkegaard in Division 2, or to those that take Heidegger’s later gestures to be a kind of mystical Gelassenheit and the crowning completion of his project. Dreyfus’s Heidegger does catch worries about our treating ourselves and everything else as “standing reserve”, as resources there for taking and using-up, but that was not his main interest. For Dreyfus, Heidegger’s achievement was to have re-described human Dasein and its world as intertwined with each other, as something very different from the complete alienation of mind from world that became solidified in Descartes, and which has plagued Western Civ ever since. Dasein may be “thrown” and “fallen”, but it is ineluctably in the world and, to that extent, dwelling at home in it.

Many of Dreyfus’s critics take this to be a domestication of Heidegger, a distortive transmutation of Heidegger into a tolerant, easygoing Californian. Dreyfus’s Heidegger, on this view, becomes “Dreydegger”, more a phenomenological Obi-Wan Kenobi than the Darth Vader he actually was. I think this critique is true as far as it goes: Dreyfus did tend to downplay the scary parts of Heidegger — the radical nationalism, the Nazism, the full-throated championing of the resolute authenticity of the German Volk. But it does not go all that far. This critique amounts to a complaint that Dreyfus does not present a comprehensive account of what Heidegger was and tried to do. I am not sure this was Dreyfus’s agenda to begin with.  Rather, Dreyfus wanted to use Heidegger, ready-to-hand, for purposes that were not exactly Heidegger’s own, or at least not Heidegger’s only purposes. (Heidegger de-Nazified is, I believe, Heidegger enough, and a distinct improvement.) “Dreydegger” may be a pastiche, a surgically-altered Heidegger. But the surgery was needed, and “strong misreadings” of key figures in philosophy are not rare occasions, and not necessarily interpretive sins. Dreyfus did a decent job trying to discern “what is living and what is dead” in Heidegger. For that we should all be grateful. Requiescat in pace.


In the ominous-sounding year of 1984 the “liberal-communitarian debate” was going full-throttle. Communitarians took aim at Rawls and Nozick, and often hit their mark, but they were far less successful at articulating a concrete vision of community that overcame the defects of liberal democracy while retaining its benefits. As Alasdair MacIntyre – often lumped with communitarians even though he vehemently rejected the label – often pointed out, there’s nothing inherently good about “community” as such, some communities being irredeemably evil.

One book published that year, the political theorist Benjamin J. Barber’s Strong Democracy, advanced a variant of the communitarian critique of liberalism without romanticizing “community.” The hinge of that critique was the revival of a strong, participatory idea of democratic citizenship, rooted in local communities but mindful of wider loyalties. Barber’s view could be called “rooted cosmopolitanism”, a vision of politics that, like populism, confronts the power of entrenched economic and technocratic elites, but unlike its ascendant right-wing version, eschews nationalism and a culture of reactionary fear. In a way, Barber channeled the spirit of John Dewey, who nurtured similar hopes for a genuinely democratic culture, but remodeled it to answer to the issues of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

One of these issues was the neoliberal model of “globalization.” Barber’s 1995 book Jihad v. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World, turned out to be more than prophetic come 9/11/2001. Barber’s claim was that globalist capitalism was running roughshod over local cultures, overturning settled patterns of existence, and technologically unifying the world in accord with the needs of an ever-accelerating flow of capital. In Hegelian fashion, this “McWorld” vision of neoliberal corporate domination generates its antithesis in “Jihad”, which does not name only Islamic movements like ISIS and Al Qaida but any ethnic-religious blocs that attack the fragile institutions of liberal-democratic nation-states. McWorld and Jihad have a perverse dialectical relationship with each other: ideologically antagonistic toward McWorld, Jihad will co-opt all manner of its technological innovations to advance the causes of reaction. And McWorld will go all-out to sell Jihad its MacBooks and Pepsi, transforming it into a lifestyle enclave where the marketing department can work its magic.

Both McWorld and Jihad are profoundly antidemocratic. McWorld accepts inequalities as “the price for progress” and deadens civic consciousness by fostering mindless consumerism. Jihad demonizes “the other” and crushes tolerance and the need for citizen deliberation. But the dialectical standoff between McWorld and Jihad can be aufgehoben through a revitalized civil society, which must be nurtured locally through “civic spaces” that foster democratic culture that is at once locally rooted and globally open.

Recently, and in light of Trump’s election and the fusion of capitalist McWorld and nationalist Jihad, Barber had turned to the civic culture of cities to effect a return to democracy. In a post-election reflection published in The Nation, Barber pleaded his case for cities as the engine of democratic culture:

Donald Trump and his voters are sailing not merely in the face of the winds of change but against history’s dominant trends: global demographics are against him, as are American demographics; the reality of urbanization is against him; the mobility of peoples is against him; and the growing dysfunction of national sovereignty on an irreversibly interdependent planet is against him. In this world without borders, where no one nation can solve global problems alone and walls are not so much malevolent as irrelevant, the cosmopolitan voice is also history’s voice — reality’s voice — and a viable American voice, too. It represents a majority of the world’s population, four-fifths of its GDP, and speaks for our inexorable urban destiny. We cannot allow it to be lost in the noise of parochial national xenophobia, or self-indulgent recrimination about why Democrats lost, for it speaks for us, too.

The cosmopolitan voice is, of course, the voice of cities, and it is the natural antidote to Trump. Look carefully at the electoral map: It is not, as pundits now insist, the victory of the heartland, from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Wisconsin and Michigan, over the two liberal coasts; it is the victory of suburban, exurban and rural counties over cities — blue islands found in every red state in the nation. And it is this national, gerrymandered electoral map, mediated by an undemocratic electoral college, that prevented the urban vote from winning the White House — even though it won the majority. I say this not to recriminate but to focus on the real division of America, which is urban/rural right across the land, not coastal/interior.

The new American reality suggests a very particular role for cities. The dominance of the Trump-brand of Republican party over all three branches of government renders the old balance of powers ineffective. Yet America’s cities and the networks they have forged with cities across the world — in bodies like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the US Conference of Mayors, EuroCities, and the new Global Parliament of Mayors — have the weight to contain, and push back against, power.

Cities have their antidemocratic profiles of course: within cities, particularly New York and San Francisco, whose economic center has been hollowed-out by middle-class flight to suburbs and exurbs, there exist wider disparities between the haves and the have-nots than anywhere else, thus stymieing the possibility of shared “civic space.” But I think Barber is right to insist that if “rooted cosmopolitanism” can be cultivated, cities large and small have the right kind of soil to nurture it. How to repair the urban/non-urban split is another issue, one Barber neglected and which the left needs to address. (More importantly, the stability and ultimate fate of capitalism itself is underemphasized: you don’t have to be a Marxist to realize Marx was certainly on to something quite relevant to the present age.) But Barber has done much to disabuse his readership of any notion that the true dialectic of political culture is and will continue to be that of “Coastal Elites v. Heartland Populists.” Not everyone in a city is a member of the elite, and in cities the neoliberal globalist consensus is not assumed to be universal and eternal truth. The resistance to both Jihad and McWorld should fan out into all corners of the countryside. But it will begin on city streets.

Barber passed away on Monday April 24. Requiescat in pace.


Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, also passed away on Monday April 24. Every American student of philosophy remembers certain key books that he or she has cut their teeth on. (In my case, it was Walter Kaufmann’s durable anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, followed by the occasional dipping into Frederic Copleston’s History of Western Philosophy.) Pirsig’s book, subtitled “An inquiry into values” has well served that tooth-cutting purpose for many readers, in part because the philosophy to which it gives voice is embedded in a very straightforward narrative of a father-and-son motorcycle trip. It is not a “philosophical novel” in the manner of The Brothers Karamazov, nor is it a philosophy text disguised as a novel like “Sophie’s World”, nor a novel that uses philosophy to advance the plot, as in Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind Body Problem. In Pirsig’s book, the philosophy glides in and out, sylph-like, and it is only at the end that it, like Pirsig’s protagonist and his alter-ego Phaedrus,  all comes together as a novel/philosophy-text hybrid.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is all about “quality.” For the narrator, re-integrating Phaedrus into his electroshock-ravaged personality, quality names the ineffable something that pervades everything, the truth of things beyond all particular truths and especially “theories of truth.” Call it “suchness” – practitioners of Zen do – and realize that it escapes the views of diehard classicists and died-in-the-wool romantics as well. The Narrator/Phaedrus veers off into discussions of epistemology and metaphysics and the philosophy of science, but like a boomerang always returns to the Tao of “quality”, the fusion of “the true” and “the good” that the Greeks cherished, but which was ripped asunder over the centuries, with classicists so attached to “the true” that they disenchant and dehumanize the world, and romantics so smitten by the good that they watch the world vanish from view into their egos or the void.. The Narrator/Phaedrus tries to get this transcendental unity of the true and the good back, even as the attempt to do so earlier in his life drove him mad. He succeeds at the end, but in a sense he was enlightened all along since he, unlike his hardcore romantic friends John and Sylvia, sees quality in the mundane task of keeping his motorcycle in good repair. Like the IRS workers in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Phaedrus is able to grasp quality in the mundane, the ordinary, even the boring. There is Zen in the majestic mountains and sea, but also in oil and rubber and tin shims.

Pirsig’s novel is certainly not a go-to source to get a handle on either Western Philosophy or Eastern Mysticism. Copleston’s volumes and D.T. Suzuki’s essays, respectively, are much better at that task than Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But as a place to be introduced to the sense of wonder and determination where philosophy east and west begins, it does just fine.

Requiescat in pace.

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Michael Quirk

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